Life Lessons: Georgina Reid

I first met Georgina Reid three years ago in a café in Marrickville. The Planthunter founder and editor was looking for someone to help with cultivating her growing online community, and a mutual friend had put us in touch. Looking across my coffee cup at George as she polished rain spots from her glasses, I remember thinking how clever, interesting and kooky she seemed, and how at home I felt in the presence of this mysterious woman. Though I didn’t know it then, she was to become a big part of my life. I’ve worked with George over the last few years and have learned a few things – she loves poetry, solitude and her best pal, Scruff the dog; she’s a botanical name nerd who feels strongly that sandwich wraps are a crime against bread; and above all, she has a deep reverence for the intricacies of the natural world. But like all great characters, so much of Georgina Reid still remains something of a mystery to me. And today, I’m hoping to unveil a little of that.

The Planthunter founder and editor, Georgina Reid, at home in her garden
Georgina's work-in-progress home and garden on the Hawkesbury River

Is there a story behind your name? Well, not really. Mum wanted me to be a boy and had plans to call me Nicholas. I’m not sure why Mum and Dad settled on Georgina. A few years ago, though, I realised that it actually means farmer or ‘tiller of the earth’. Of course it does, given that ‘geo’ relates to land. I was quite excited to know how aptly I was accidently named.

What is your earliest memory? I have a vivid memory of my brother and I sitting on the verandah amongst pumpkins harvested from our vegetable garden. I think my brother Will was hammering nails into them, but am not sure if this is actually true, or a story I’ve told myself.

You grew up on a property near Orange in NSW. Can you describe this landscape and how it affected the person you grew to be? It is inside me, the landscape of my childhood. It always will be. Every time I see the low rolling hills unfurl after crossing over the steep sandstone escarpment of the Blue Mountains I feel a deep sense of ease. I can breathe deeper. For a long time, I half cursed this connection, because it made it hard for me to settle in the city – it never felt right, and it would have been so much easier for me at the time if it had.

Returning to this area as an adult, do the feelings of connection remain the same? Or do you feel differently about the landscape you once called home? It’s funny, because when I was younger, I didn’t know how to articulate the connection I had to the landscape of my childhood. It just was home, that’s all. Now, I guess I can articulate it better, and with articulation comes interrogation, for me anyway. I read books like Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth and I realise that what I loved, what I still love, is a compromised landscape. A place so much more layered than I ever realised. And not necessarily in a good way.

Why is the garden the perfect place to talk about life, death, and all of the parts in between? Because it is at the same time human and more-than-human.

There’s few other places I can think of where the big questions of life and its processes are both visible and engaged with by human hands.

It’s different to a self-sustaining wilderness area, for example, because the garden requires human input to exist, it needs someone to tend it. It’s different to a farm, because productivity isn’t the only end game – beauty is too. The garden is a place both poetic and pragmatic, and it’s this tension that fascinates me.

In the last couple of years, you’ve relocated to a bushland property on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, accessible to the outside world only by boat. What does the river mean to you? How has this change of place and space affected you? I’ve always been an introvert but moving to the river has taken things to a new level! I often don’t see or talk to anyone for a few days, whilst my partner is in the city, and I love it. Living here has fostered my natural reclusive tendencies, which seems to be more concerning to others than myself – It’s a wonderfully quiet and reflective space to ponder and write from.

I always thought I was a country person, but I think I’m now growing into a river person. I am obsessed. The river is endlessly changeable and so alive. It rises and falls and is still and wild and windy and calm and all these things all the time. I spend quite a lot of my time looking at it out the window of the boatshed where I work.

Of course, the other wonderful thing about being here is that I have a garden. It feels like such a luxury, and it is. It’s a visual disaster, as all my theories and thinking about plants and life and nature and environment have to be pondered and or/embodied in it, which means very slow progress and precedence given to experimentation over design. It’s a garden only it’s gardener could love, and by god I love it.

What are you growing in your new garden? I’ve planted a bunch of native tubestock – most of which are growing OK, although a bit slower than I’d like. Then I have agaves and aloes salvaged from the side of the road. Then there’s the plants grown from cuttings given to me by people I interview for TPH. Then there’s the veggies, and a few pots of weird things from my garden in Marrickville. In between all these things I’m sort-of bush regenerating it – clearing the weeds and seeing what pops up. Very interesting.

What’s a lesson about the natural world that you are learning in this new place? I’m reminded always that I know very little, and that what I do know isn’t really that useful. A plant will do what it’ll do, regardless of what I think I might know about it from another location or from information online or in books.

Boatshed details.
View from the boatshed, aka The Planthunter HQ

What’s your favourite scent? I’m obsessed with scent. Here’s a few favourites: The smell of rain on dirt, cedarwood, coffee, garlic cooking in olive oil, old leather, the smell when you press your nose into the neck of a horse. Daphne, jonquils, freesias. I could go on…

How was The Planthunter born? It was born as a sort-of new year’s resolution in January 2013. I’d had the idea for a while and then it somehow popped out of my mouth when I was asked what I was going to do in 2013. Speaking my intention seems to have been enough to make me commit to it. It’s the only new years resolution I’ve ever stuck to.

What is your writing process like? I always start writing at the computer. I flesh out the direction and the first few paragraphs and then I take the story with me on a bushwalk or into the garden. This has become an important part of my process. Allowing a person or an idea time to seep through me and to distill what it is I’m trying to say is really valuable, and it allows me to give myself more fully to a story. I think this is because it removes the pressure of making a good sentence from my thinking process. It also takes the idea or person out of my head and more into my body, where truer things tend to hide.

Poetry plays an integral role in how you connect with and understand the world around you. What is it about this style of writing that resonates with you? A poem can point to profundity in just a few lines, whereas the same insight might take an essayist a few thousand words to communicate. This is what I love about poetry. The richness, and the artfulness and the depth of language.

Are there any poems/poets in particular that you keep going back to time and again for understanding/inspiration? It’s perhaps a little cliched but I do love the work of the late Mary Oliver. There’s something about the simplicity of her language that really resonates with me. Her work is both accessible and profound. I am not sure there are any higher attributes to aspire to as a person who works with words. The attention she lavishes on the more-than-human world is breathtaking.

What keeps you excited about TPH? Why do you keep coming back and how does it continue to stay relevant to readers around the world? I keep coming back because I believe wholeheartedly in the work I am doing with The Planthunter. It is, without any doubt, a true passion project. This brings complications, of course, but essentially, I keep coming back because I want to.

I am on a mission to encourage humans to see and value the more-than-human world in line with the truth of our relationship to it – as connected not separate. This, I think, might just be my life’s work.

There’s an increasing awareness that living in a state of disconnect to the more-than-human world is not only unsustainable but incredibly dangerous for all life on earth. There is a feeling that things need to change but the social and economic structures many of us live within make it very hard to achieve wholesale societal and political transformation. But our own personal relationships, with each other, with plants, with nature – we can change these ourselves. And this change is more important that we’re led to believe, primarily because it creates space for hope and action. It is within the domain of the small and domestic and personal that I hope The Planthunter continues to be relevant and inspiring for people across the world.

TPH Book 2.0. Thoughts? I’d make books all the time if I could. I loved the process of making The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants with my dear pal Daniel Shipp. I’m not sure about book two – I’d love to delve deeper into some of the ideas explored in the first book and maybe push things a bit further. But nothing is certain right now.

Are you spiritual? I am certainly not an atheist, though I don’t know that that makes me spiritual. I don’t believe in any particular god, but I do believe in wisdom and connection and wonder and awe and beauty. I guess I believe in life, in all its mystery. Maybe there’s spirituality in that.

Who are you influenced by? I’m less influenced by particular people than by ways of being. I’m influenced by people who are not scared of being wholly themselves. Those who don’t follow the pack, and who live fully, in whatever way that means to them. And then I’m influenced by trees and plants, and cicadas and ants, who all achieve this so effortlessly.

One of the reasons you’re able to write so knowledgeably about gardens is because of your past experience as a landscape designer. Do you see yourself ever returning to this kind of work? Why/why not? I stopped designing as I decided that I needed to become a better gardener in order to become an excellent garden designer. Design can only go so far in a garden. If you’re a good designer but are not a great plantsperson then your work will be compromised. I see this all the time – great design but average planting design means an average overall outcome.

Now that I have a garden of my own, I am building my skills, though it’ll likely take me another 20 years to become even vaguely proficient. Gardening is like that – the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know.

I am not sure I will return to designing private gardens. Whilst I acknowledge the value of design, I feel like my ideas don’t really fit into that realm anymore.

What would you be doing in another life? I would be doing something creative – design or photography or something like that. But, truly, I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I have a very strong sense that I am on the right path. My path.

What does the future look like right now? I vacillate between hope and horror. I feel great sadness for what we humans are doing to each other and our home. I feel great hope when I spend time with the trees and in the garden and I see the commitment to life that exists within every being. Our species might extinguish itself and many others but I know without any doubt, that the plants will survive. This both consoles me and breaks my heart.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Since moving to the river I’ve become a Casuarina glauca. There’s a bunch of them down by our boatshed, holding the riverbank together with their roots. They are the storytellers, the whisperers and the connectors. They feel feminine to me, but in a scrappy, self-made kind of way. I like that.

Boatshed details
The boatshed.